Could someone please tell me the meaning of the alphanumeric numbers on aircraft's tails?

What exactly does the SB 023 mean for this Indian Sukhoi-30 MKI aircraft?

what does the "SB 023" mean for sukhoi-30 MKI aircraft

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    $\begingroup$ Are you interested only in military aircraft, or all aircraft? $\endgroup$
    – user
    Feb 27, 2018 at 16:00
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    $\begingroup$ All military aircraft seem to have these identifying tail labels, but the derivation of the symbols varies widely from country to country and even service to service. A related and more interesting question might be "What is the purpose of the alphanumeric numbers on aircraft's tails?" $\endgroup$ Feb 28, 2018 at 15:01
  • $\begingroup$ I am interested mainly on military aircraft's....! $\endgroup$ Mar 1, 2018 at 16:22

2 Answers 2


TL:DR, SB-023 means it is airframe number 23 of the SU-30 model MKi. It is flown by the Indian Air Force.

The small rectangle is what is known as a fin flash. It generally identifies the country of origin of the aircraft and sometimes the garrison or command within that country. In this case it indicates India (not to be confused with the Irish Fin Flash. We can be sure it is India because the roundel further forward is that of the Indian Air Force.

The letters and numbers above are likely to be the "tail code" Which is a USAF term. I'm sure this term has a unique name in Indian military parlance but I can't find it. The Tail code usually describes the either the home base or manufacturer of the aircraft as well as sequence number of the aircraft. Note that sequence number and serial number are not identical and multiple air frames may share the same sequence number as air frames are retired or refitted.

On a USAF Aircraft a two-letter code generally indicates its home base. The plane would then have a numerical code indicating year built and sequence number.

I've had a look through google images and every SU-30MKi I can find has an SB prefix to its tail code so I am going to guess that it is an indicator of manufacture and/or sub-type. Interestingly, all SU-30s and Mig-29s bear the same prefix within type (SB and KBU, respectively) but Mig-21s have a variety (I've seen UI, CI, CII, and CUI.) Which makes sense since India has fielded multiple variants of the 21 but only one variant of the 30 or 29. My observations are based on a survey of the first 4 pages of google images for each aircraft so are hardly exhaustive.

The Sequence numbers come up in discussions among enthusiasts for example.

It is worth noting that India's military designation system evolved while the country was part of the commonwealth during WWII, the time when most of the world's modern designation systems were conceived. Despite that, India employs many Warsaw pact and a few home-grown systems, resulting in a unique combination of designation system and technologies.

  • $\begingroup$ In (at least) the Navy and USMC it indicates the squadron number to which the aircraft belongs (unless the practice has changed since my Air Wing days). $\endgroup$
    – BillDOe
    Feb 27, 2018 at 20:00
  • $\begingroup$ AFAIK This is true for most NATO countries. Forces (IE Navy, AF, USMC) simply vary by whether wing, SQN, Base or some combination thereof is indicated. For example, USMC aircraft which will bear a tailcode for the wing as well as a code or name of the carrier to which that wing is assigned somewhere on the plane. (possibly the tail.) Things work a bit differently in commonwealth nations where the garrison is indicated rather than unit. As with all things military there is tons of lost history, pages of regs, and yet, nothing is standardized. $\endgroup$
    – user28387
    Feb 27, 2018 at 20:07

Naming tails after exceptional air warriors is an old Indian Air Force tradition. E.g. the Indian Air Force named the first Rafale trainer aircraft RB 008, in a tribute to Air Marshal Rakesh Bhaduria, who played a very critical role in the procurement of the fighter jets, and led tough negotiations for the 36 French fighter jets.

Trainer aside, the tail number of the operational Rafale fighters carries the BS series - BS 001 onwards - named after ex-IAF chief Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa.

KH - the tail number series for LCA HAL Tejas is named after scientist Dr Kota Harinarayana, programme director and chief designer of the indigenous light fighter, while the HAL HTT-40 basic turboprop trainer has ‘TSR’ in honour of the then C/MD of HAL T. Suvarna Raju.

Similarly, IAF MiG 27s carried TS series, named after a former officer of the IAF, and SB for Sukhoi 30s stands for two young Wing Commanders whose names were not disclosed. It could also possibly be named after Sqn Ldr Surya Bir Singh who won the Vayu Sena Medal for exceptional gallantry.

Interestingly, the C17 transport aircraft of the IAF carries CB after the former IAF chief NAK Browne, whose call sign was Charlie Browne.

The Tail Number is given by the Operations Branch of the IAF and then the series are allotted by the Maintenance Branch. These are nuggets which many don’t know, and there is no fixed parameter for tail numbers.

Earlier in IAF history, Hunters sported ‘BA’,the Canberra ‘IF’, the Gnat ‘IE’ but thencame the Russian-origin MiG-21s which just had the alphabet ‘C’, while the Sukhoi Su-7s carried ‘B’.

In the 1980-90s came various versions of the Jaguar (‘JS’; ‘JT’; ‘JM’), the Mirage 2000s were ‘KF’ ; ‘KT’, the MiG-29 ‘KB’, the swing wing MiG-23s were ‘SM’, MiG27s were ‘TS’ and the Sukhoi Su30MKIs ‘SB’, even though all aircraft tail numbers are nowadays being airbrushed off in official IAF releases.

  • $\begingroup$ This is very interesting! Do you have some sources you could reference to back it up. Otherwise, it could be considered "some guy on the internet says...". $\endgroup$
    – FreeMan
    Sep 16, 2022 at 13:20

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